Poets & Writers

Starting Out in an MFA Program?

I HAVE taught fiction writing for almost three decades and served as program director of two graduate programs—the MA program in creative writing and literature at Kansas State University and the MFA program in creative writing at Oregon State University. Students often ask, “Can I do this? Do I have what it takes?” While I can’t predict anybody’s future writing success, I’ve found that students who thrive in what one of my grad school pals called “MFA School” embrace some common practices and habits.

First, stay focused on why you are in school. Presumably you want to write, read, study other writers, grow as an artist and a person, and become a part of the larger community of writers and readers. If you’re lucky you’ll make some lifelong friends. Write down your own list of MFA School objectives and pin it above your desk as a reminder.

The second point seems obvious, but it’s key. Do your work. You will be asked to read things you won’t love and to write outside your comfort zone. Do the reading and the optional readings, too. Reread. Annotate. Mark up the margins. Close reading is your best teacher. If an assigned reading isn’t your thing, try asking yourself, “What can I learn about writing from this writer?”

If you have more serious concerns about a reading assignment, talk to your instructor. Classes in MFA School are, or should be, a two-way street, a conversation, a working through the texts together. If you’re a

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